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Myth Busting Research: 'No Evidence' Pregnant Women Nesting Is A Biological Urge

While nesting has proven to be true for mice, rabbits and pigs who prepare their nests to provide a safe environment for their litters -- a growing body of evidence suggests the same does not apply to pregnant women.

A new British study has examined nesting in online pregnancy texts as well as nesting in academic literature.

"At the moment there's no scientific evidence for a nesting instinct in humans, but we do know that women face lots of scrutiny around their fitness to be mothers, including social expectations about their living environments," study author Dr Arianne Shahvisi told 10 daily.

Shahvisi said it is important to draw the distinction between what is science and what is merely social and cultural.

"Using the word 'nesting' suggests that humans are experiencing the same phenomenon as pigs and mice, but there's simply no evidence for that," she said.

The academic said 'nesting' sets up a woman's role as the one who is expected to do a disproportionate share of housework.

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The Senior Lecturer in Ethics at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said it's important to challenge this stereotype and social expectation that is often perpetuated in pregnancy books and popular culture.

"Women are judged more harshly for having unclean or untidy houses, and throughout the world, perform a disproportionate share of housework.

Human behaviours are so strongly determined by the cultures in which we live that it's very likely that "nesting" has more to do with the heightened pressures society puts on pregnant women than any hormonal fluctuations," she said.

Yet in a 2016 survey, almost three-quarters of women polled on pregnancy claimed to have noticed nesting behaviours during their pregnancy. This suggests 'nesting' behaviour is common.

The British academic does acknowledge that parents spend more time cleaning and preparing ahead of a baby's birth -- but her research points out that it doesn't result from a mum-to-be's hormonal urge.

An Australian expert has another suggestion for what drives this behaviour.

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"It is possible that as women are feeling anxious about the birth that you are channelling that anxiety in a productive way makes you feel a greater sense of control," Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Melbourne said.

One 2015 study in the journal Current Biology, posits that rituals like cleaning and organising may be a coping mechanism for anxiety. The study also found people with higher anxiety levels made more rigid and repetitive hand movements, which scientists believe is a coping strategy.

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But Ruppanner stresses that gender gaps and housework load begins to widen significantly once children are born.

"It is a very critical period of time for women in terms of their futures and it is a moment in time in which you see a sharp traditionalistion in gender roles,"  Ruppanner told 10 daily.

She said at this time, housework expands and when women step out of the labour market, they continue to do the lion share of the domestic chores even when they get back to work.

Image: Getty Images

"If you look around the world, other countries are acutely aware that this is a moment of traditionalistion and they are trying to put into place policies and resources to allow men to step in about that moment in time," she said.

Ruppanner pointed to the Swedish model where they have parental leave and some portion of it is reserved only for fathers.

"There's also research from Stockholm that found when dads parent in early-stage, kids are more likely to go to both them and mum when distressed, and fathers are more likely to continue to help with domestic chores as the kids grow up."

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au